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September 13, 2018

The Science of Early Learning

Lego 674881 1920

Your child’s brain grows constantly during early childhood.

Experienced parents may be familiar with the life-changing experience of stepping on a LEGO. Through tears and pain, many lessons emerge. The whole family gets to learn about keeping floors clear, wearing house shoes or scanning for stray toys when barefoot.

But LEGOs are more than a painful lesson — they are great toys! And they are also a good example of what learning experiences can be for children. That is, children build upon each experience until they are able to form recognizable ideas and thoughts.

Child Brain Growth

A baby’s brain begins forming and growing before they are even born. Once a baby arrives, that process happens really fast. In fact, 90% of their brain grows in the first five years of their life. At birth, the number of synapses per neuron is 2,500, but by age two or three, it’s about 15,000 per neuron.

Growth slows down a bit as a child grows older. The first abilities the brain builds are the ones for seeing and hearing. If you played music for your baby when they were still growing inside you, you were helping them develop their ability to hear!

These first circuits in your baby’s brain are simple, but they are the base for the more complex growth that happens after they are born.

Serve and Return
Mother and Child

Serve and return helps promote your baby’s brain development.

Women who’ve experienced pregnancy know a lot of attention is placed on their diets — what they should and shouldn’t eat for healthy fetal growth. Once the baby is born, the brain continues growing. What children eat is just as important, but their learning diet also includes words and interactions. And all of that language builds the brain connections, or synapses, that make it possible to learn words.

One of the most important interactions is the “serve and return.” Serve and return is when we interact with babies’ babbles, reactions and expressions. When we “return” their “serves,” a baby can figure out their relationship to their environments. The whole process is an an important support for your baby’s growth through their toddler years. Here’s what it looks like:

SERVE: Your baby sees a dog, smiles and begins waving their arms and legs.

RETURN: “Hello doggy! She’s happy to see you too!”

SERVE: Your baby points and reaches for an avocado slice.

RETURN: “Are you hungry? Here is a slice of avocado for you.”

By exploring your little learner’s reactions together, you teach them that they can trust the connections they are making in their minds. When a child feels secure in their learning, they can explore and build upon that knowledge. Children who don’t feel secure about what they are learning are less likely to build from one idea or feeling to the next. Not having serve and return experiences makes it harder to learn and grow.

My Tears are Talking for Me.

Recognizing and responding to potential conflict is an important life skill. Although your baby may not be faced with a great deal of conflict at this juncture in his young life, he recognizes when things aren’t quite right. And he’s ready to tell you! When he feels threatened or uncomfortable, he’ll let you know by demonstrating his distress – through tears, sounds, or body language. Read more...

From three to kindergarten, children’s brains make less connections but reinforce the most important learning.

Right around three years of age, children’s brains start making less connections. Instead of making millions of new neural links a day, the brain forms more complex connections. And that process will rely on their experiences as an infant and toddler.

Between three and five, children’s brains go through a process called pruning. Some things are forgotten, and others are reinforced.

Through rich learning experiences in care or with their family, many early lessons get re-learned. Some less important things tend to fade away. That process — pruning away less important things to make way for strengthening the most important things — sets them on a path to success. Their path begins with the millions of connections in their first three years. Then, reinforcing that learning and building new skills in preschool and pre-K years gives them what they need to succeed in school, the work place and their community.

Stress and trauma can lead to obstacles in learning and in health.

Young children don’t have the same issues that adults normally associate with stress, like money, relationships or jobs. But they can experience lots of stress in their young lives. Childhood stress can have a serious impact and potentially change the course of their life. That’s because stress influences the way brains grow.

Three Types

Image via: Center on the Developing Child – Harvard University

What can stress look like for a young child?

  • Physical needs not met reliably
  • Physical or emotional abuse, exposure to violence, or exposure to substance abuse
  • Maternal depression

After experiencing repeated stress or trauma, a child’s brain connections can become damaged or not grow. That stress, if not addressed early, can have a long-term impact on a child’s brain development.

What can we do to promote healthy brain development?

Brain science tells a lot about how we can support children’s growth. The primary thing we can learn is that supporting children in their early years helps them succeed in school, work and in their community.

The most exciting part of this research for families is that the best way to help children isn’t an expensive program or pricey toys. Nope, the best thing we can do for them is to nurture our relationships with them. We just have to talk to them, learn with them and ensure their physical and emotional well-being.

A child’s relationship to their family determines a great deal of their brain growth. And their relationships with caregivers also has an impact in the health of their development. Which is why choosing the right child care for your family can make a big difference in the future of your little learner.

REFERENCE: Center on the Developing Child (2007). The Science of Early Childhood Development (InBrief). Retrieved from

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